Texas Tech University

Researchers Search for Ways to Improve Cotton Farming

Karen Michael

December 17, 2020

Faculty members are experimenting with genetics, drones, robots and more.

For roughly 45 years, Matt Farmer has been growing cotton in West Texas, and he wants nothing more than to take care of his land so that his children and grandchildren can continue working the land as he and his father have.

Matt Farmer holds a young cotton plant the day after rain came to his fields.

He is relying on research like that of Texas Tech University to make his operation more efficient because farming has changed drastically since he was a teen.

"I rented my first farm when I was 14 years old. I started farming then. I farmed up until the early 1980s," Farmer said this summer on a cool morning that followed a night of rain. On that particular morning, he and his son-in-law had planned to oversee pulling the tractors into a barn to be put away, because they had not gotten enough rain. Instead, they were running five tractors wide open in fields just east of Lamesa because rain came just in time.

After he took several years off from farming to train race horses, Farmer, who makes dad jokes about his last name and his profession, returned to farming in 1991, and has been working the soil ever since.

In farming, Farmer said, "You get to see what God can do. You get to plant a little bitty seed that grows into a big plant. You get to be with family and friends and learn and experience a little more, sometimes the harshness of life and death through the cattle side of it. But mostly, it's just the family that you get to be around."

Farmer said he used to believe if he got a good section of land, that's all he would ever need.

"Now between the two of us" – Farmer works with his son-in-law, Garron Morgan – "we're right at 10,000 acres. You don't want to be that big, but you have to be that big to survive in today's climate," Farmer said.

He has seen many changes over the years. As profit margins have gotten smaller, tractors have gotten larger – from eight-row tractors of the past to 16-row tractors now – and much more expensive. Morgan talked Farmer into adopting no-till practices on some of their fields. Water has grown more scarce – in the areas where the family irrigates its crops, they used to run more than 550 gallons per minute, and now feel lucky if they can get 350 gallons per minute.

"We have to change the way we farm, because you grow so much, because you have to, but your profitability margins get so much smaller. We end up having to farm more. We have to change the way we farm to be able to farm more acres," Morgan said.

Garron Morgan poses with his dog, Lucky, in the midst of a cotton field east of Lamesa.

Farmer has also seen changes in how much things cost, and he is more careful about what he is putting into the land. Cotton seed used to cost $25 a bag, and now costs $400 a bag. Growers are not allowed to catch their own seed and replant it anymore, because the new varieties of cotton have drought resistance, bug resistance and herbicide resistance built into them.

"It's nice, it makes it easier," Morgan said. "It's just expensive."

Farmers like Farmer and Morgan want to take care of their land and use the most up-to-date research they can afford to invest in to stay afloat.

"Farmers are really bad about thinking, 'That's the way granddaddy did it, and that's the way my daddy did it, so that's the way we're going to do it," Farmer said.

But his son-in-law said Farmer has been open-minded about the process and allows him to bring new ideas to the table.

"Matt's been really good when I come to him with a crazy, hare-brained idea, half the time he'll say no, and half the time he'll say, 'Yup, let's do it.' And he is wise at saying no when it is a crazy idea, versus giving me the leeway to say, 'Yeah, let's change it up,'" Garron said.

On the Farmer farms, the two men have adopted cover crops and no-till practices after reading up on farming research.

But they would like to see more of the type of research Texas Tech has been producing – especially research into using cotton in more ways. Farmer was excited about research into using cotton pads to absorb oil spills, as well as a plastic-like product made from cotton.

"That came right out of Texas Tech," Farmer said proudly.

In the future, he wants to see more strides made in drought-tolerant cotton research, which the Texas Tech faculty is obliging.

Researchers modify cotton genes to double yields in high heat, drought conditions

A research team led by Hong Zhang, a biology professor at Texas Tech, published research about a set of genetic modifications to cotton that double its yield without any apparent drawbacks.

Field-testing of control and OsSIZ1/AVP1 co-overexpressing cotton plants in 2018. OsSIZ1/AVP1 co-overexpressing plants (OA) are on the left and wild-type cotton plants (WT) are on the right.

The modifications by Zhang's team were made by overexpressing two different genes that are present in all plants, not just cotton. The changes make cotton more tolerant to drought, heat, and salinity, all three of which challenge farmers in West Texas and in many other agricultural areas of the world.

Zhang said he hopes the increase will dramatically revolutionize the agricultural industry, allowing farmers to use less water and fertilizer and to produce more cotton with their efforts.

"This is why our research is so important, because we can save water," Zhang said.

Climate resilient cultivars and early planting: Could it help farmers in West Texas?

Haydee Laza, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, is a plant physiology specialist. She has been at the university for just over a year after working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Laza said she wants to find traits that will be used by breeders to develop cultivars for our increasingly changing climatic patterns.

"With the plateauing of cotton yield under current growing season, shifting cultivation by early planting will allow crops to grow under a more favorable seasonal pattern, used stored spring water, and avoid late season diseases and pests, with a potential for increase yields," she said.

"Also, with the recurring seasonal droughts, farmers may have to adjust their production systems by using climate resilient genotypes suitable for their growing regions," Laza said.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto: Researchers use robots to speed up crop analysis

Texas Tech researchers have worked to monitor water use and consumption with remote sensors, but eventually one researcher decided to up the ante and run robots through the fields to take measurements of how big each plant was growing and how much cotton it was producing.

"It got really time consuming to try to go out and take measurements on thousands of plots in a week. We started looking at ways we could speed this process up," said Glen Ritchie, the chair and associate professor of the Department of Plant and Soil Science.

Ritchie said he had a very talented graduate student who worked with him to build a robot from scratch, using an Xbox controller to drive the robot. The robot could be driven between plants to take measurements, and as an added bonus to its speed, it was also more consistent than human eyes.

While a human could get through 40-50 plots per day, the robot could do hundreds of plots in four hours.

"It wasn't nearly as cool as WALL-E," Ritchie said. "It wasn't able to look around, but it was able to go out, and for this one task, it was very good at picking out where the bolls are."

The robotic research team recently received another BASF Project Revolution grant to continue the project, Ritchie said.

Farming goes high-tech: Researchers use drones to monitor crop health from the sky

Just like humans can run a high temperature when ill, cotton and other plants display the same temperature spikes when there is a problem with the plant.

Wenxuan Guo, an assistant professor of crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture with a joint appointment to both Texas Tech and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, is using drones to determine the health of plants.

Wenxuan Guo's team gets ready to launch a drone out in the field.

At Texas Tech, most of Guo's research focuses on improving cotton production, but he said most of his research related to remote sensing could be applied to other crops because the principles are the same.

His drones, which are about six feet wide and can carry 20 pounds of sensors, can measure or assess temperature, stand count, height, leaf area, canopy cover and plant maturity.

"Mostly, we use the drones for remote sensing. We mount some sensors on the drone so that we can monitor the plant health conditions during the growing season," Guo said. "If a plant is under stress, especially water stress, we use canopy temperature and other information from these sensors to assess the severity of stress for improving crop management."

If farmers have data from drones about their fields that indicate where plants are consistently underperforming, they can focus their water resources on the areas of the field that are more productive, Guo said.

"We have to think how to more wisely use our resources, especially water. If we apply water and nitrogen more than needed, there could be environmental concerns," Guo said. "We can produce more with less input using technology. That's one of the goals in precision agriculture."

Poor quality cotton could be transformed into biodegradable, plastic-like product

When cotton quality is low, farmers still need to sell the product.

Texas Tech researchers are exploring new ways to use cotton that may not be ideal for a shirt or jeans.

Noureddine Abidi is a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and the director of the Fiber & Biopolymer Research Institute (FBRI).

Abidi's team has found a way to make a profit with low-quality cotton by mimicking another product entirely. They have broken cotton fibers down into cellulose that can be molded in a gel form and shaped into a plastic-like substance. When handled, the smooth and pliable product looks and feels very much like the same plastic found in sandwich bags. It can also be made into thicker forms for other needs.

Unlike plastic, which does not easily decompose, cotton used for this purpose is biodegradable.

"It is basically going from the soil to the soil," Abidi said.

Researcher tries microbial solutions to bind soil

Another Texas Tech researcher is looking into ways to improve the health of the soil in West Texas.

Lindsey Slaughter, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, specializes in soil microbial ecology and biochemistry. She is interested in the relationship between agricultural plants and the microbes that are both above and below the ground.

Slaughter said research that Texas Tech has been involved in for years before she came to Lubbock is interesting to her, because it involved growing cotton on land for a few years, then taking it out of rotation and allowing cattle to graze in those areas.

"We need a little bit more of that research ongoing to find ways that cotton farmers may be able to diversify their production systems while still making money, which is one of the big caveats," Slaughter said. "Maybe you want to grow something else besides cotton for one year, maybe you ought to have a small section of your farm that has a really high-value crop. But really, our primary outcome is profitability and water savings."

Slaughter's research is in its third year and has focused on whether adding more microbes to the soil can increase soil health and cotton yield. She said in the first year of research, there was little change, but that wasn't entirely unexpected because the environment in West Texas is harsh. But after the second year, she said her team saw some differences in the soil microbes.

"There could be long-term effects on soil because of what microbes do in terms of helping it to be more stable, helping bind it together a little bit better, to keep it from blowing away as badly, or helping pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in that soil," Slaughter said.

"We're starting to see that, and there could be long-term effects on soil because of what microbes do to the soil in terms of helping it to be more stable, helping bind it together a little bit better, to keep it from blowing away as badly, or helping pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in that soil. There are ecosystem-level benefits that we could still see from that," Slaughter said.